Oswego, New York

Delaware, Lackawanna & Western


The west side of the city was host to the first rail line in 1848. The Oswego & Syracuse Railroad later became the northern end of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western's Syracuse Branch, which ran from the mainline at Binghamton thru Syracuse. Arriving in a small yard (The Yard) on the southwest side of town, a three stall roundhouse served the local switchers and road engines from trains originating in Syracuse. Passenger trains proceeded along West Utica Street to the stub-end station near the corner of West First and Utica Streets (Utica St.), with service lasting until 1949.

A coal dealer, warehouses and the Kingsford Foundry were served from a lead off the passenger station track. Once past the Downey coal yard trestle, the track dropped down a steep grade to reach the other shippers' locations. The original stone freighthouse was also along this track.

The bulk of the Lackawanna shippers and its second freighthouse were located along the Oswego River and the lakefront. (River) A drop in elevation of roughly forty feet between the yard and station track levels and the river and lakefront posed a large problem for the railroad. The original alignment caused unbearable problems with grade crossing delays until a relocation was made shortly after 1900. To master such a gradient in a short distance, a new track was laid parallel to the station approach along Utica Street. It began dropping into a cut and near West Third Street, the stone arched bridges of the preceding cross streets gave way to a tunnel that curved underneath several more streets and opened along the river just north of the Utica Street bridge.

The track then paralleled the river, passing the new freighthouse at Bridge Street, Oswego's main thoroughfare. Coal dealers and a lumber yard followed until the largest shippers were reached at the mouth of the river. The Huron Portland Cement Company had an elevator where large lake freighters unloaded their cargo for rail shipment.

On the lakefront proper, protected as the whole harbor was by a series of breakwalls, a large grain elevator was operated by the State of New York. This large, concrete facility, still in use today, has a capacity of over 1,000,000 bushels of grain.

The track to these elevators created two stub-end sidings from a facing point switch, with the bumping posts at the lake end of the pier. Due to this unusual track layout and the crews' desires not to have to push cars through the tunnel, engines always led cuts of cars from the yard to the harbor. This resulted in the precarious practice of the "flying switch" being a common occurrence. Pity the poor student brakeman who missed the switch and sent a string of cars chasing the switcher down the grain elevator siding toward the end of track and the lapping harbor waters beyond. The resounding crash was nothing compared to the engineer's epithets. I witnessed once such occurrence in the late 1960s that was accompanied by crashing cars and clouds of dust flying up from the hoppers, plus a derailed truck to boot. Not the conductor's best day.

Further to the west along the lakefront was the site of the Lackawanna coal facilities. Though a coal trestle (Coal) had been constructed upriver from Bridge Street shortly after the O&S arrived in town, low drafts for the lake boats caused a relocation to the lakeshore in 1883. A 35-pocket trestle was constructed on a 1000' pier. Cars were pushed up onto either side of the trestle for unloading. When empty, the cars were rolled, one at a time, to the end of the trestle. The momentum carried the cars past a spring switch and up a slight incline. Gravity and a sturdy, curved bumper headed the cars back down the steeper center track to the storage yard. Maneuvering ever-larger vessels into the west slip became increasingly difficult and use of the west chutes was subsequently abandoned. Weather on the Great Lakes can be severe, with heavy rain and winds in excess of 50 mph. To protect the crews and permit around the clock operation, the trestle was enclosed shortly after 1900. It remained in service until 1934.

The 1935 season saw the trestle replaced by a new device. A coal conveyor simplified transferring the black diamonds to the waiting ships. (Coal conveyor photos) The switcher would uncouple from the loaded cars near the shore end of the pier and cross over to one of the other two tracks. It would then back up to the other end of the siding, pushing any empties out of the way. The engine would then ease up to the loaded cars and push them to the end of the wharf. Cars were rolled individually down to the loader, spotted over a large bin, and emptied. The conveyor was lowered into position over the collier's hold and the loading began. Empty cars were again rolled down to the storage yard by gravity. Meanwhile, the switcher would take the empties back to the yard and bring more loads up to repeat the process.

According to a 1937 promotional booklet produced by the Oswego Chamber of Commerce, this device greatly reduced the breakage of the coal during transloading and produced a better end product. Working three shifts, it would take from five to nine hours to load a ship, depending on the size of the vessel and whether it was hard or soft coal. A further improvement came in the form of a shaker or slicer. This was a large metal box that was lowered to the top of the car. This shaker commenced its namesake action and shook the car until all the coal was loosened sufficiently to empty the car without manual labor. The decline in coal shipments, plus complaints about the horrendous noise of the shaker, caused the closing of the dock in 1963.

A handicap of the line from the yard to the lake was the tunnel clearance. Originally constructed when engines and cars were small, the inside clearances found the tunnel 15' 2" high at the center with an 11' maximum width. As cars increased in size, the tunnel proved more and more inadequate. During the 1940's, a renovation was begun to raise and widen the tunnel. Reconstruction began at the north end. However, two thirds of the way through, the new, reinforced-concrete lining ended and reverted to the arched, stone-lined tunnel. Hence, in the 1960's, when boxcars were needed for potash or cocoa bean shipments from the state elevators, normal size cars (like AAR or any PS-1 types) were too big. It was a joy to see the diminutive XM class boxcars of the Northhampton & Bath Railroad and the wooden, outside-braced "Sole Leather Line" cars of Wellsville, Addison & Galeton arrive in quantity for loading. The problem was so severe that, in 1941, engine 172, an 0-6-0, was rebuilt so her cab and other appliances would clear the tunnel. Even so, the maintenance-of-way crew spent many hours breaking ice from the roof and walls of the tunnel to keep it open during the harsh winters.

After the closing of the coal loader, the yard engine was eliminated, the freighthouse closed and the freight clerk moved to the old roundhouse office. The clerk was finally moved to Syracuse in 1968. With the Conrail takeover, the lake-front trackage was abandoned completely and the tunnel and cut filled in during the mid-1970's.

New York, Ontario & Western

               New York Central

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